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How to explore Scotland by train

How To Explore Scotland By Train

Tips and insights for how to travel by train in beautiful Scotland which will tell you all you need to know.

| Last Updated: about 1 month ago

There really is only one way to explore beautiful Scotland and that's by train. Whether you are day tripping or visiting for longer, train travel offers you reliability and flexibility at affordable prices.

The trains which some travel along some of the world’s most beautiful railway lines are mostly brand new or have been recently modernised; so now is a great time to be making the most of this renaissance of the Scottish rail network.

As marked on the official Rail Map of Europe As marked on the official Rail Map of Europe

Experience stunning natural beauty:

On the rail map of Europe the exceptionally scenic routes have green borders, and Scotland is second only to Switzerland as the area of Europe with the highest percentage of these green lines.
And most of the other Scottish rail routes which haven't been highlighted on that map, such as the route between Aberdeen and Inverness, are also delightful.

It's fair to say there are a limited number of routes on the Scottish railway map, but many of those that remain are remarkable survivors.
To avoid the political implications of most the stunning Scottish Highlands being deprived of trains on the mass route closure plans of the 1960s, the likes of Fort William, Kyle of Lochalsh and Thurso still have stations; the fact that travelling to them is a magical experience just happens to be a happy accident!

Head north or south from Edinburgh or from Glasgow, and in less than half an hour you’ll find yourself surrounded by Scotland’s natural beauty.
Plus in addition to the lochs, rivers and mountains, you’ll experience some of the best coastal views available from European trains.

  • Top left: The view from the north side of the Forth Bridge.
  • Top right: Loch Long as seen on the Glasgow to Fort William, Mallaig and Oban train journeys.
  • Bottom left: From the north shore of the Firth of Forth on trains from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness.
  • Bottom right: Loch Gare from those trains heading to Fort William and Oban

How to see Scotland by train:

There are three primary options for seeing the best of Scotland by train:

(1) Take a round trip around Scotland by train including short bus journeys and/or ferry crossings in north-west Scotland, to bridge the gaps between the railway lines.

(2) Choose a fabulous location, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow or Stirling with easy access to a main station, as a base from which to take multiple day trips by train; check out the guides you'll find below.

The three key advantages of exploring Scotland by train over a series of day trips are:

  • Avoiding multiple transfers to overnight accommodation, meaning that…
  • You can travel light.
  • You'll have the freedom to react to the changing weather.

The Scottish weather is unpredictable, as I discovered some years ago when a series of wet days accompanied a round Scotland circular itinerary.
However, if you use one location as a base for your explorations, you can then target the finer days for making the particularly scenic journeys.

(3) Or you could combine these touring and day trip ideas.
For example, you could head off from Glasgow to explore the north of Scotland; perhaps by taking advantage of a Grand Tour Ticket, but then ALSO take some day trips from the city.

Scotland is comparatively small, so the longest train journey takes around five hours, but on most routes you'll be spending less than three hours on a train.
And those wonderful train journeys often begin and end at fabulous railway stations!

Scotland's fabulous railway stations Scotland's fabulous railway stations

From top left, the beauty of these stations is being showcased: Edinburgh Waverley; Glasgow Central; Wemyss Bay x 2; Edinburgh Waverley and Stirling.

Journeys from Edinburgh and Glasgow

The journey guides include access to booking links and information about the trains, tickets and destination stations. Plus for the scenic routes there are insights on how to make the most of the rides on the trains.

Rail passes for seeing Scotland by train:

North Berwick is an easy day trip by train from Edinburgh North Berwick is an easy day trip by train from Edinburgh

The exploration of Scotland by train is made easier thanks to ScotRail offering a range of Rover tickets and passes which can be used to hop on and off trains for a set period of time.
They can potentially save money even when making a series of day trips, so you don't need to be touring around all of Scotland by train to make good use of them.

You can head all over the country with a Spirit Of Scotland Pass, or use the Highland Rover or Central Scotland Rover to travel in a specific area.
Another idea is to use a combination of tickets and passes, so that, for example, you can book tickets to travel by train to and from the area in northern Scotland in which the Highland Rover can be used.

The two key advantages of using the passes are:
(1) the potential to save money
(2) the freedom to be spontaneous – particularly if you use the passes to head off on day trips.

Making the Most of a Central Scotland Rover from Edinburgh

The Central Scotland Rover is best put to good use by making a series of day trips from Edinburgh to the likes of:

(1) Glasgow - what’s particularly handy is that you can use the pass to travel on the Glasgow Subway to multiple attractions outside the city centre, such as the Kelvingrove gallery and museum, the Rennie Mackintosh Museum, the Tall Ships Museum or the Riverside Museum of Transport.

(2) Stirling Castle by frequent trains and The Falkirk Wheel - take bus route/line 6 from Falkirk Grahamston station, both locations can be easily combined on one day trip.

(3) Taking the beautiful Tweedbank Railway to Galashiels

and/or making the trip to North Berwick to explore its beautiful beaches; again both locations can easily be combined on one day of exploration.

The Spirit of Scotland rail passes

Spirit of Scotland passes live up to their name by allowing for travel across the country, as well as journeys over the border to Berwick-upon-Tweed and Carlisle in England.
However, these passes can no longer be used for free travel on the ferry services between the mainland and the islands off of the west coast of Scotland, including Arran, Bute, Mull and Skye.

Furthermore, these tickets can be used on selected longer distance bus routes operated by Scottish City Link, Stagecoach and West Coast Motors, particularly the routes that plug gaps in the Scottish railway network.

A Spirit of Scotland Pass valid for travel on 4 days within an 8 day period = £149 for Adults and £74.50 for children aged 5 - 15.
For 8 days of travel within a 15 day period, the charges are £189 for Adults and £94.50 for children aged 5 - 15.

ShowMeTheJourney's has compiled two gorgeous interchangeable itinerary ideas for making the most of special Spirit Of Scotland passes valid for 8 days of travel

Will using the passes save money?

The first step to working out whether any of Scotrail’s rover tickets and passes will potentially save you money is to look at these maps.

The Spirit Of Scotland map

The Central Scotland Rover map

The Highland Rover Map

It’s worth taking the time out to do this, because the pass and rover tickets are more likely to save you money if the locations on your wish-list are far apart.

For example, the Highland Rover is designed to save you money if you want to include Glasgow and the Isle Of Skye AND the far north of Scotland, on your adventures.
So if one of these locations isn’t on the must see list, then the Highland Rover will be less likely to be a money saver.
Though the virtues of the Highland Rover pass are detailed by the writer of this fabulous article.

Spirit Of Scotland Passes vs Tickets:

If you’re considering exploring most of Scotland mainly by train on the 8-day pass, using the Spirit Of Scotland pass will almost certainly be a money saver, even when compared with the cost of booking discounted Advance tickets.
Because the additional cost of an 8 day pass compared to a 4 day pass in effect buys you four days of unlimited travel for only £40.

For a 4-day pass, the value for money equation can be tighter, so ShowMeTheJourney carried out a price comparison, for both an itinerary based around day trips AND a round-Scotland itinerary.

(1) Making day trips from Stirling to:

  • Bute via Glasgow
  • Aviemore
  • Fort William via Glasgow
  • Edinburgh via Dundee and Leuchars
    The Spirit of Scotland Pass only saved around £5 against the costs of tickets on sale a month in advance.
    (But it gave the freedom to make last minute decisions on the destination of the day - the cheaper Advance tickets commit the purchasers to specific trains at the time of booking).

(2) On an around Scotland sample itinerary including these four journeys:

  • Berwick upon Tweed > Edinburgh > Aberdeen
  • Aberdeen > Inverness > Kyle Of Lochalsh > Portree on the Isle of Skye
  • Portree on the Isle of Skye > Mallaig > Glasgow
  • A day trip to the Isle of Arran from Glasgow.
    The saving with using the pass was £30, even when compared with booking tickets two months ahead.

Using tickets and seat reservations:

Most of ScotRail's trains are either new or have been refurbished Most of ScotRail's trains are either new or have been refurbished

What also impacts on whether using the rovers or Spirit Of Scotland pass will be a money saver, are the types of tickets available on the routes you will be taking.
In Scotland the Advance type of tickets which are discounted, if you book ahead of the travel date, are only available on these longer routes:

  • Glasgow - Perth - Dundee - Arbroath - Aberdeen
  • Edinburgh - Arbroath - Aberdeen
  • Glasgow - Perth - Aviemore - Inverness
  • Edinburgh - Perth - Aviemore - Inverness
  • Glasgow - Oban
  • Glasgow - Fort William - Mallaig
  • Glasgow - Ayr - Stranraer
  • Aberdeen - Inverness
  • Inverness - Kyle Of Lochalsh and Wick and Thurso
    Note that Edinburgh <> Glasgow is not on this list.

To save money by using these tickets you have to commit to taking a specific train on your travel day, so if the weather happens to be poor at the time you will making your trip, you won’t then be able to choose a different train or destination - without paying a £10 admin fee and the price difference with your original booking
Which is why in a location with weather as volatile as Scotland’s, the spontaneity that the passes and rovers give you, can be a big plus.

Though something out of the ordinary, which is very much worth being aware of, is that ScotRail doesn't release Advance tickets for sale until 8 weeks ahead of the travel date.
However, on the routes on which Advance tickets are available, the more expensive Anytime tickets will be placed on sale up to 3 months ahead.
So of if you look up a long-distance journey ticket on the ScotRail website more than 8 weeks ahead, you will only see the Anytime tickets.

ScotRail takes Advance tickets off sale at 18:00 (6pm) on the day prior to a travel date.

Saving With Off Peak Tickets

When travelling around Scotland by train for fun, if you will be travelling on the many more numerous routes on which the Advance tickets aren’t available, the Off-Peak tickets are comparatively cheap.
Particularly when using Off-Peak Day Return tickets to make day trips – as they can be under £2 more expensive than booking single tickets.

Off-Peak Day Return tickets can be used to travel by train from Edinburgh OR from Glasgow to multiple fairly distant destinations including the island of Arran; Bute; Balloch for Loch Lomond; Dundee, Perth and Stirling Castle.
Those tickets won't be any more expensive if you buy them at the station right before your journey.

ScotRail also offers deals for when adults travel with children – which can impact on whether using the Spirit of Scotland Pass as a family will be a money saver.

Also note that Spirit of Scotland Passes can't be used on travelling on Peak services

Using seat reservations:

In common with the rest of the UK, seat reservations are optional, though they are only available on these FIVE routes in Scotland:
1 Glasgow or Edinburgh <> Aberdeen
2. Glasgow or Edinburgh <> Inverness
3. Glasgow <> Oban or Mallaig via Fort William
4. Glasgow or Edinburgh <> the border and to/from Carlisle
5. Glasgow or Edinburgh <> the border and to/from Berwick upon Tweed

When booking Advance tickets for journeys on these routes, specific seats will automatically be assigned, but when booking Off-Peak or Anytime tickets, you will be given an easy option to add a reservation when booking online.
Or if when booking Anytime or Off-Peak tickets, you don't yet know which specific train you will want to travel by, you can arrange a seat reservation free of charge later, either at a station, or by calling ScotRail’s Customer Relations team on 0344 811 0141, selecting Option 3.
However, reservations at stations need to be arranged a couple of hours prior to departure.
These methods of booking reservations also apply if you will be using a rail pass, you can drop in at a ticket office and arrange seat reservations, at no extra charge, or call that number.

To Scotland by train:

These new Azuma trains have recently been put into service by LNER These new Azuma trains have recently been put into service by LNER

It has never been easier to travel to Scotland by train because a record-breaking number of trains now cross the Anglo-Scottish border in some of Europe's most spectacular railway journeys.

On the West Coast route

and on the East Coast route

In the past two years new additions to the train timetables have:

  • Provided direct trains from Liverpool to Glasgow.
  • Doubled the number of trains between Leeds and Edinburgh.
  • More than doubled the number of trains between Manchester and Edinburgh.
  • Provided for two trains per hour throughout the day from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh no other European railway route of this length has such a frequent service!

And brand new trains are now operating on all of those routes, plus on the established service between Manchester and Glasgow.

The Pendolino trains which provide the hourly train service from London Euston to Glasgow and the hourly services from Birmingham to either Edinburgh or Glasgow are also being refurbished.

Brand new trains have also revolutionised the Caledonian Sleeper overnight services between London and Scotland.

Please support ShowMeTheJourney

This second version of ShowMeTheJourney is exciting and new, so we are genuinely thrilled that you are here and reading this, but we also need your help.
We’re striving not to let anything get in the way of providing the most useful service possible, hence a facility has been set up with DonorBox which can be used to support the running costs and make improvements.

Instead of advertising or paywalls, your financial support will make a positive difference to delivering an enhanced service, as there’s a lot of ideas which we want to make happen.

So if you have found the info provided here to be useful, please go here to say thank you.


Simon Harper

I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.


This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.


Please support ShowMeTheJourney

Help keep us advertising and paywall free!


This second version of ShowMeTheJourney is exciting and new, so we are genuinely thrilled that you are here and reading this, but we also need your help.

We’re striving not to let anything get in the way of providing the most useful service possible, hence a facility has been set up with DonorBox which can be used to support the running costs and make improvements.

Instead of advertising or paywalls, your financial support will make a positive difference to delivering an enhanced service, as there’s a lot of ideas which we want to make happen.

So if you have found the info provided here to be useful, please consider saying thank you.